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Tipsheet

Becket Calls Out Washington State County for Banning Employees From Having Religious Decorations

Mikhail Metzel

On Tuesday, Becket Law released their 2022 Ebenezer Award for the worst offender to the holidays during this year's Christmas and Hanukkah season. The winner, King County in Washington state, holds the distinction for meddling into the religious affairs of county employees in their own homes, by telling them not to display religious holiday decorations, such as a Nativity scene or a menorah, in their remote video backgrounds.

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A press release from Becket highlights a piece from Jason Rantz for 770 KTTH, a local conservative talk radio station. In addition to Rantz's own commentary about such an absurd war on Christmas and religion overall, more information about the directive is included:

King County Human Resources warned employees not to decorate their workspaces with overtly Christmas or Hanukkah decorations. They fear decorations may offend employees.

Gloria Ngezaho, Workforce Equity Manager for the Department of Human Resources, authored a memo titled “Guidelines for Holiday Decorations for King County Employees” to outline expectations. It says the county “remains committed to honoring the diversity in its workforce and is fortunate to have employees from many diverse backgrounds.”

The fact that the county has an "Equity Manager for the Department of Human Resources" is enough on its own to raise eyebrows. Ngezaho's claims also highlights the poison that is so often spewed from these so-called "equity" managers. Adding insult to injury, though, is the claim that the county supposedly "remains committed to honoring the diversity in its workforce" and that they are supposedly "fortunate to have employees from many diverse backgrounds." 

It's all nonsense, though, given that the county won't allow employees to express their religious beliefs during the holiday season. 

As Rantz goes on to write:

“Before adding any decorations to your workspace (including your virtual workspace), consider the likely effect of such decorations on all of the employees in and outside your work group,” reads the memo obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH by a county staffer who found it posted internally last week.

...

“Some employees may not share your religion, practice any religion, or share your enthusiasm for holiday decorations. Displays of religious symbols may only be displayed in an employee’s personal workspace. Religious symbols should not be displayed in or as a background to an employee’s virtual workspace,” the memo explains.

The memo says you cannot include Nativity sets or menorahs. But the list of symbols banned from virtual display extends well beyond what you would display for the holidays: stars of David, a cross or a crucifix, and images of Jesus or Mary.

To ensure that HR isn’t accused of focusing exclusively on Christians and Jews, even though that appears to be the intent, the memo warns against the dharma wheel, crescent and star, aum, khanda, and a nine-pointed star. None of these symbols are displayed for the holiday season.

...

“For those who are not teleworking, common areas within work units are considered a public area. These spaces are shared by multiple employees in the performance of their jobs. Such areas would include breakrooms, conference rooms, and reception areas. Religious symbols are not appropriate in these areas, because it may cause disruption to co-workers or members of the public that do not share that particular religion,” the memo claims.

The memo states that, as a public institution, it “cannot appear to support any particular religion.” And the guidelines apply to holiday gatherings.

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The county appears to have long been engaged in a war on Christmas and religious holidays, as it turns out. For Rantz also shared the following statement from a county employee:

“It’s been a number of years, but we were told we can’t wish anyone a “Merry Christmas.” People were literally reported to HR if they put it in their e-mail(s),” a county staffer emailed the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “Years ago the Christmas party (red/green decor) became a Holiday party with silver/blue decor and no holiday music. It then became the annual party with nothing.”

The move from the county inspired Becket to issue a statement from Montse Alvarado, the chief operating officer and executive director of Becket. "Religious employees of King County will likely feel like the ransacked residents of Whoville this Christmas and Hanukkah season," she said. "The government has no right to rob its employees of holiday cheer by forcing them to take down their nativity sets and menorahs, particularly in their own homes."

Others have noticed the offense. Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), for instance, earlier this month declared the county to be a "First Amendment Scrooge," and called out how the county for how it was engaging in "selective targeting of religious views for suppression violates its employees’ First Amendment right to free speech." 

While an update, also from Tuesday, includes a statement from the county denying that the policy is unconstitutional, FIRE continues to hit back. As is mentioned in part in the update:

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The policy isn’t even viewpoint-neutral — let alone content-neutral — because it bans only decorations expressing religious views. To enforce the policy, the county has to look at an employee’s decorations and make a judgment about whether they express a religious viewpoint. The Supreme Court considers such viewpoint-based censorship an “egregious form of content discrimination.” 

What’s more, no reasonable person would think the religious decor in an employee’s personal workspace, real or virtual, is an endorsement of that religion by the county. Just as nobody would think the county roots for the Yankees because their logo is visible in an employee’s home office during a Zoom meeting.

FIRE stands by its call for King County to bring its holiday decoration guidelines in line with the First Amendment.

In an op-ed for Fox News from December 4, Hiram Sasser, the general counsel for First Liberty Institute, also warns that the policy is "illegal and ridiculous," warning that "it may require legal action to bring diversity to the bland world of King County."


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